The official Football Association diary for this season has the date marked for the start of the World Cup on 11 June but no mention of the final exactly one month later. After all the anti-climaxes of previous tournaments, it is as if there is a superstitious reluctance in the England camp to tempt the fate that has so often undermined them. Following mathematical confirmation of the qualification that had looked on the cards since winning in Croatia 11 months ago, the words "South Africa" may at last be uttered in polite FA company.
It was still something of a surprise the morning after the night before to hear Fabio Capello musing even briefly on the possibility of a final in Johannesburg between his native Italy, the holders, and the country he has adopted to such superb effect. What, he was asked, would constitute success next summer? "To arrive in the final." Against his fellow countrymen? "I hope it will be."
Given the chance of England progressing further than at any tournament since 1966, it is fair to say, however, that the choice of opposition would hardly matter. Without doubt, it would be daunting, whether wearing Brazilian yellow, Spanish red, German white, Dutch orange or Italian blue – to name but five possibilities. As England's women found out on Thursday against an old enemy, even reaching a final can turn out to be the easy part.
The danger, after last Wednesday's heroics concluded a run of eight straight qualifying victories with 31 goals, is that dreaming will detract from the work that needs to be done over the next nine months.
And true to form, Capello was soon back in the real world that he has at last begun to persuade his charges to inhabit. "I and the players keep feet on the floor, always. It's a long way to the final. We have to go step by step, forget what we won before. We won eight games but it's nothing, absolutely. The next game always."
After the last qualifying matches, there should be a November friendly against Brazil in Doha, Qatar, as Capello seeks another test of how far his squad have progressed. Not far enough was the suggestion from similarly high-powered fixtures against Spain and even France (a defeat which looks increasingly feeble as time goes on). He has clearly fixed one or two problems; notably the supposed midfield incompatibility of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, who shared Wednesday night's honours with Aaron Lennon and scored in the same international for the first time, astonishingly, since September 2004.
There is still a need to find someone who will understudy – if not challenge – Glen Johnson for the No 2 shirt. It is inconceivable, as some suggested this week, to travel to a four-week competition against the world's best with only one player familiar with the right-back position, which makes Wes Brown the favourite at this stage; his other advantage is being able to cover as one of the four centre-halves, freeing up an extra midfield position.
That would help Capello choose from the surfeit of wide players. It is a position in which Lennon, like the Beatles, has been remastered to a thrilling new sharpness, shooting up the charts in the past week while Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Young – if not David Beckham – have dipped. One extra midfield man, however, means no extra striker and no need for one if Theo Walcott is included. Increasingly it looks as if either Peter Crouch or Carlton Cole must stay at home.
The manager's liking for Emile Heskey is as clear as the Aston Villa forward's strengths and weaknesses proved to be once again: unstinting, unselfish hard work winning the ball as a target man but unable to score. Or as Capello put it: "Heskey is important for the system we play. He's very important because of the movement, the pressing, winning back the ball. The others finish. He opens the door for the others."
Heskey needs to be playing for Villa. Lennon needs in future to be bursting with his current confidence. For the nation as a whole, however, it is quite right that confidence should not develop into the excessive presumption of past tournaments. "I know the history," Capello said of England's recent past. And if you know your history, as the terrace song has it: "It's enough to make your heart go whooooooaaaaa!"
Moyes 'no' to Scotland
Everton manager David Moyes does not want to be considered as a replacement for George Burley if he leaves his position as Scotland manager after their failure to qualify for the World Cup. He would be a leading contender if the job became vacant, but he has no interest in the post at this stage. "Not at present," he says. "It would [be of interest] if I was very fortunate enough to be offered it in the future, but I still see myself as having a lot to learn. I'm still trying to find my way in club management and I enjoy doing the job and being at Everton."
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